Tap & Tea with Heather Cornell

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This final series of Tap & Tea history talks kicked off a few weeks ago with special guest Heather Cornell. Heather is the artistic director of Manhattan Tap and was the only dancer to be mentored and trained by legendary jazz musician Ray Brown. She is known for having been a major player in the tap dance renaissance and her famous ‘Tap Labs’ are celebrating 30 years this August.

Heather started dancing as a child in Canada with classes in ballet, jazz and tap, with the tap being taught as per the syllabus system, which she, and many others (particularly in the UK) describe as having lots of limitations, to the point where Heather was actually ‘aged out of it’ by the AGE OF 14… She described Canada at that point as having “no understanding of the history of tap”, and she stopped tap dancing because the only avenue was to go into musical theatre, which she didn’t want to do. She went to study Dance Therapy at NYU and did modern dance, but she was at a loss with the vocabulary. She then discovered the more rhythmic Cunningham technique of contemporary dance and decided to move to New York permanently. She ended up getting back into tap, and someone recommended she go study with Cookie Cook – Heather described the first time she heard the sound of his taps and burst into tears! It was a world away from the Canadian tap syllabus.

During her talk, Heather described Charles “Cookie” Cook as a consummate performer. He did comedy, Russian dancing, knockabout, you name it! He had an amazing sense of theatre, timing and how to put together a show and the education she received from him helped her to create her own company, Manhattan Tap. It was that old school style of learning – she hung out with him, he talked and she soaked it all up. Speaking of the old school hoofers, as many have said, none of them taught in the modern way of ‘this is how you do a shuffle’…they just danced and played, and you just had to pick it up: “It was a culture, not a subject”.

Continuing on this theme, Heather moved on to talk about the concept of mentorship: “I collect people”. She said it’s a serious thing – find a mentor, but be prepared to commit. As mentioned by other guests on previous weeks, Heather didn’t hide her disdain at the “distorted euro-centric way of learning” where ‘I pay you, you give me…’ because it will “never grow the art form”. She also made us aware that apparently many of the older generation of tap dancers bristle at the current use of the phrase ‘tap fam’ (as in tap family) because the relationships in those former days were deep and personal, like a parent passing something onto their child. I’ve seen the phrase ‘tap fam’ used a lot on social media as a way to make everyone feel connected across the globe as one big tap family (especially during Covid, right?) but I can see where Heather is coming from when she describes the current scene as more ego-driven and business-like, especially when everyone’s got a social media presence and fan base to maintain.

She was so not impressed with the cutting contests and competition scene, where you have teachers sitting in judgement over other tap dancers, or the newer tap festival scene where teachers are kept apart from attendees. Why? Because “mentors need to be accessible”! Cutting contests happen at all the festivals I’ve been to, and in my opinion, I think they create a bit of excitement and engagement, particularly for younger dancers…but personally, I won’t be taking part any time soon! I do agree with Heather that a tap jam is a better expression of what you can do, because participants can share, learn and ‘steal’ from each other, rather than be under the pressure to compete and then be told by a ‘judge’ that something they did was ‘wrong’ or not as good as their rival. What do you think?

Heather Cornell was fascinating to listen to. She is one tough cookie with understandably strong opinions on the direction the tap scene is going in. But that’s a good thing, because you need people to defend the art and make sure it goes in the right direction and continues to be accessible to all.

Some quotes from Heather

Wake up and start taking responsibility for yourself

If we don’t pass on the history [of tap], nobody else will

We need to reconnect tap dance to the music

You have to make mistakes or you won’t get better

Don’t be afraid to colour outside the lines

 

 

Tap & Tea with Ayodele Casel

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Guys, I’m so behind with my promised write ups of the Tap & Tea history talks, but I think I’m getting back on track, and so today I’m going to sit down to tell you all about Thursday’s tap history talk with special guest Ayodele Casel. You may even want to have a cup of tea to hand!

Described by the late Gregory Hines as one of the “top young tap dancers in the world”, Ayodele Casel is a New York based tap dancer and actress. She is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades for her art, including the 2017 Hoofers Award, and she was named one of the ‘Biggest Breakout Stars of 2019’ by the New York Times. She was artist in residence at Harvard between 2018-2019 and became a Fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard 2019-2020. She has performed with Gregory Hines, Savion Glover, American Tap Dance Orchestra and Jazz Tap Ensemble. She is co-director of Operation Tap, and as you can see from the image above, she is on the August cover of Dance Magazine. Her mission is to “make tap dancing a relevant presence in the arts”. .

I was really inspired to hear that Ayodele was a relative late starter to tap dance at the age of 18. (Not as late as me in my 30s, but it’s nice to hear from someone who didn’t start at 3 years old for a change!) She was actually an Acting major at university (NYU), but was drawn into tap dance classes as part of her Movement for Actors class. Prior to this, at high school a teacher had shown the class a Fred and Ginger musical as part of a ‘History of the Movies’ series and this first peaked Ayodele’s interest in tap. A year into her university tap classes, she met Baakari Wilder (“a real tap dancer!”), who invited her to classes at the legendary Fazil’s dance studio where she realised she didn’t know anything about tap. Baakari taught her the history of tap and introduced her to the idea of tap as self-expression.

A point that has come up time and again in these ‘Tap & Tea’ sessions is how the tap dancers of the hoofing culture taught – not as a transactional relationship (I pay you, you teach me), but with generosity and sharing life and experience, like a family. Ayodele agreed that there is value in the teacher-student studio structure, but it is worth remembering that not everybody is there to become an artist and often the teacher doesn’t have time to mentor the individuals that are. For her the studio structure stirred something in her, where she wanted to learn more. She mentioned another point that has come up many times – young dancers who take every class going, but are making very little progress – because they’re not using their initiative to do their own learning outside of class. How much class is too much?

After training with Baakari, Ayodele went onto train with Barbara Duffy (who we heard from a few weeks ago) at Broadway Dance Center. She joined the ‘Funk University’, a training ground for young dancers to be channelled into Savion Glover’s Broadway hit Bring in da Noise, Bring in da Funk. It had a predominately male cast, but workshop director Ted Louis-Levy allowed her into the training workshops, changing the game in what was still a pretty male art form and giving Ayodele a huge opportunity to develop her art. She described it as being akin to being allowed into the Hoofers’ Club of the 1930s & 40s, where no women were allowed!

This led onto discussion of her current Harvard research on the forgotten women of tap (something I’m immensely interested in too, and will be doing some research on myself once Tap & Tea has finished). Being the only woman in Savion’s show Not Your Only Tap Dancer, people greeted her after the show with comments like “I didn’t know women could tap dance” or “You dance like a man!” This made her want to delve deeper, and so she researched women like Jeni Le Gon and Lois Bright of The Miller Bros & Lois. These women were so talented and were doing amazing stuff, just like their male counterparts, but they were then largely forgotten until now. You can check out Ayodele’s digital series Diary of a Tap Dancer on NY City Center’s Youtube channel, which gives a voice to these forgotten ladies.

It was another fantastic Tap & Tea session, and I found Ayodele so inspiring! I completely agree that you as the student have to take the initiative in your learning if you want to progress. Practice! Read! Watch!

Some Ayodele-isms:

You have to take the initiative. Give yourself the permission to go ahead and be great.

Exercise your bravery, don’t exercise your fear.

How do we use technique to create meaningful expression?

The marriage of information and the next level [of tap] is dependent on the student

2 Tap Workshops

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Finally rescued these shoes from work!

Last week saw my final rhythm tap class before breaking for the summer holidays…but not before I attended two great summer workshops:

The Shim Sham 

On Wednesday evening our rhythm tap teacher ran her one hour ‘Tap Shim Sham‘ summer workshop online. I was really looking forward to this because I didn’t get to take part last year due to other commitments (a friend’s BBQ!) and I’ve never quite picked up the razzmatazz ending of this famous tap dance standard. I was able to run an extra long cable from the broadband router in the house, down to my laptop in the garage so that I wouldn’t have to rely on intermittent Wi-Fi. Problem solved and no interruptions – apart from my cat poking her arm through the window and meowing at me through most of it! Even though I know the steps of the Shim Sham and have taken part in a few of these dances at various festivals (and even recorded myself for a lockdown video collab in May), it was just so helpful to go through it slowly, sort out my Tack Annies and just clean up the steps a bit, before speeding up. Fun!

Improvisation & Choreography

At 7pm on Thursday our teacher ran her two hour ‘Tap Improvisation & Choreography’ workshop on Microsoft Teams. As I’ve mentioned previously, public improvisation can be quite nerve-wracking, but with it being online this year, I emailed our teacher a few weeks earlier to ask how it would work this time. She said the session would focus more on using improvisation to create choreography, as opposed to just working on improv for improv’s sake. (When we have this workshop in person we usually work in a big circle doing call-and-response, exercises where we copy and then add our own ending, and nearer the end of the session we improvise in the middle of the circle, one at a time, before tagging someone else to take over – eek!)

For our online workshop there were only 5 of us, and we began by sitting on the floor to do some call-and-response clapping, including one exercise where if a certain rhythm was given, you were not supposed to clap (a bit like Simon Says)! We then moved onto doing the same exercises, but using our feet. We then moved onto using only 2 or 3 types of tap step to dance to a piece of music (e.g. only shuffles, flaps and stomps). We were then asked to choose a nursery rhyme, and come up with some choreography using those rhythms, being sure to sing while you did it. I chose Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

OR

1-a-2-a-3-&-a-4

1-a-2-a-3-&-a-4

1-&-a-2-&-a-3-&-a-4

1-&-a-2-&-a-3-&-a-4

Then we had to demonstrate it to the rest of the class who had to guess which nursery rhyme it was – which they did quite quickly! I found it a really useful exercise with which to come up with some basic choreography, to which you can add more challenge by throwing in, say, a change of direction, or by crossing your feet. It’s definitely worth trying out at home – go on, do it!

Finally our teacher got us to pick a song and have a go at improvising in our very own Microsoft Teams breakout room, where she was able to ‘pop in’ and give each of us some feedback. After swiping frantically through my phone and pausing over Prince and Incognito a few times, I chose Duffy’s Rain on Your Parade, which worked very well for not being complicated. We had the task of focusing on different aspects of the song, such as the downbeat, the upbeat or the melody. It started off fixated on paddles and got and eventually got more creative, but then we ran out of time, so we didn’t get to demonstrate what we’d come up with – not that I minded on that occasion! Our teacher has asked us to send her a video of us jamming to our chosen song if we wish to…I’m thinking about it!

I have to say I was pretty done after two workshops, plus my usual rhythm tap class and Tap & Tea session all in the space of 2 days, but I got so much out of each of them, especially the improvisation & choreography class, and it really did take the stigma and fear out of having a go. 

 

Tap & Tea with Barbara Duffy

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On the final week of the latest Tap & Tea series we were joined by special guest Barbara Duffy, author of Tap into Improv

Barbara is a sought after teacher, dancer, actress and choreographer. She is a former member of American Tap Dance Orchestra (ATDO), performed with Gregory
Hines for the Clintons at the President’s Gala in 1996 which she called ‘the biggest gig of my life’, and she created her own tap company, Barbara Duffy and Company.

Barbara’s story is a really interesting one. She began her training at a dance school that managed to fit ballet, jazz and tap into a short half hour lesson! Needless to say,
technique was not taught, and this was evident when Barbara auditioned numerous times for the University of Massachusetts dance programme (five times in fact) and
was not successful. After this, she moved to Boston and took private lessons in high-heeled Broadway tap with Esther Dolan, going right back to the beginning. At this
point she knew nothing of ‘Rhythm tap’ and decided to quit dancing altogether. However, her sister invited her to watch a local tap show, and Barbara was BLOWN AWAY by the musical tap of Leon Collins. It wasn’t until Leon Collins’ dance studio relocated to be opposite her apartment building that Barbara got to study tap with him. (It was at this point that she switched from high heels to flat tap shoes). Here Barbara was introduced to tap jams and improvisation, and she was freaked out!

Tap study was a much slower process than many of us are used to these days – every week there was an hour and a half class where they’d learn just 8 bars and then go away and work on that. Similarly, while studying with Brenda Bufalino later on, classes would include things like a 5 whole minutes of just clapping and flapping, giving students the time to really settle into it and find themselves before moving onto something else. Back in those days people really STUDIED and were intentional. Nowadays, she observed, many students just want to go to class for fun and to socialise and express themselves, but they don’t work on what they’ve learned and so they turn up each week with no memory of the week before – and they see zero improvement.

After Leon Collins died in 1985, Barbara moved from Boston to New York to study with Brenda Bufalino, and was invited to join ATDO, with whom she performed and toured until around 1995. Being in based in New York City she also got to study with famed theatre choreographer Henry Le Tang and learn all of his routines. She was also invited to assist a teenage Savion Glover in ‘translating’ his choreography for his young students – and this was how Barbara Duffy’s name got out there.

The legendary Jimmy Slyde was known for having a regular Wednesday night tap jam where he would call people up onto the stage and say “show me a time step!” Barbara started going along to try and get over her fear of improvising, but the negative self-talk would creep in while she was performing, and then she would avoid going back. (I was really keen to hear Barbara speak about getting over her fear of improvisation, because I have felt that fear…and it’s coming back again with another improvisation workshop happening next week!) Her advice was to ‘stay where you are’ until you’re ready to move forward because improvisation is a “life-long process”. An example she gave was where you might berate yourself for doing the same step again and again…but that’s absolutely fine and you will get better! I’ll try to remember this and not beat myself up if I get stuck only doing paddles next week. A guy at our improv workshop last year kept returning to a spin on the spot if he ran out of ideas – and it was fine! (Better than running out crying, am I right? LOL)

Barbara described how rhythm tap was such a man’s game back in the day, but then Gregory Hines suggested that she get some women together, and Barbara Duffy & Company was born! Company dancers included Michelle Dorrance, Lisa La Touche, Maya Jenkins, Flavia Costa, Pia Neises and Karida Griffith among others, and the goal was to allow each dancer’s voice to emerge. Sadly, the company had to fold when they ran out of money during the 2008 recession.

While studying for her ESOL degree, Barbara wrote the amazing guidebook Tap into Improv for her course project. (Being a natural procrastinator, she benefitted from having a supervisor and a deadline!) The book came out of starting to teach improvisation to her own students and realising that they were just as afraid of it as she’d been. (It’s a great book, and I’ll try and review it at some point – but either way, make sure you get yourself a copy!).

I wrote down SO MANY notes from this Tap & Tea talk because Barbara had LOADS to say and was so interesting to listen to! I managed this, even though I had to run upstairs and relocate to the landing at the top of the stairs because my WiFi signal decided to play up! Here are a few of the useful tips she shared with us:

Barbara’s Tips for Tap Students:

Bring yourself to the class and be present and open. What are you bringing to the class? Are you engaged? Or are you waiting to be given something?

Sing everything. It will up your game immediately.

Practice everything before the next class.

Don’t listen to your feet; decide what you want to hear.

It you want to grow and expand, you’ve got to feel uncomfortable sometimes.

Barbara’s Jazz Playlist:

Oscar Peterson (pianist)
Benny Green (saxophone)
Christian McBride (double bass)
Lee Morgan (trumpet)

Check out this video of Barbara (on the far right) dancing with Gregory Hines at the President’s Gala for Bill Clinton in Washington, DC in 1996:

Great news – we start a new 4-week series of Tap & Tea next week!

4 Points from Last Week

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1. I completed a 5km run for charity (in stages) to a 90’s music playlist! The longest distance I ran in one go was 1km, which I was really pleased with. My SO is a proper runner, so he did a great job coaching this reluctant jogger. Now I’m waiting for my ‘I Love the 90s’ medal and t-shirt, and even though I said I was done with running…I’m wondering whether to sign up for the ‘I Love the 80s’ run…

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2. I quit Twitter. Well, my personal account anyway. I’ve kept my side biz account for now. I mainly used my personal Twitter for keeping up with London travel, news stuff, dance, cute animals and reading funny comments about TV shows. BUT, I’m just DONE with all the negativity and bigotry and politics that is oozing from it at the moment. It’s not even that I follow these accounts, but you know, you get drawn into reading the comments underneath. I really do have better things to do with my life!

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3. Tap class was cancelled on Thursday because our teacher (and most of London’s Virgin Media customers) had broadband problems. To be honest, I didn’t actually mind because I was quite hot and bothered in the humidity. I had practised quite a bit on previous days, and I had another Tap & Tea history talk in the afternoon, with repeat-guest Andrew Black, who this time took us through the history of tap dance in New York City, so it certainly wasn’t a tap-free week by any means 🙂

Writing Handbook

4. I set up a Writing Handbook. I think I mentioned on here last year that I wanted to return to my original teenage goal of becoming a professional writer (but often life and lack of confidence gets in the way and you end up just getting ‘a job’). Over the lockdown period I’ve been doing an online writing course, and last week I set up my Writing Handbook to gather all the helpful writing tips I’ve discovered into one place. Progress may be slow right now, but it’s still progress!

Today:

I’m still trying my best not to put myself under pressure to achieve loads during this period of being on furlough and stuck at home, because let’s face it, it’s difficult to stay motivated at the moment, despite having lots of free time! I am still writing myself a to-do list every week, but it’s much shorter than usual, and if I don’t complete a task, so what? The list is there for structure and motivation, rather than to create pressure to DO DO DO. Plus I love lists!

Work has said, sensibly, that everyone should be using their annual leave (pro-rata) just so we’re not all trying to take it at the same time later in the year. I’ve booked a week of annual leave (yes, leave from furlough) just so I have some days where I won’t be wondering if work is going to call me, or if I’m going to be called back to work at short notice. I was in touch with a friend (and former colleague) over the weekend who was made redundant from her job recently, and she said that at the moment she’s not putting herself under pressure to get another job straight away, but she’s using the time to enjoy the break and top up her tan after a sustained period of work stress. Now that’s the spirit!

Tap & Tea with Sarah Reich

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On this week’s ‘Tap & Tea’ session we heard from the amazing LA hoofer, Sarah Reich! Sarah is one of the new leaders of the tap dance movement.

She has taught in over 40 countries – I was lucky enough to take a class with her at Tap Dance Festival UK 2019 in Manchester – and her main goal is to re-programme the public perception of tap dance. She toured internationally as the featured tap dancer with Postmodern Jukebox for 2 years, and has appeared in various music videos and TV specials. She created the Tap Music Project to teach people how to dance with more musicality and has released a collaborative jazz album called New Change, which I was excited to get a copy of last year. Sarah is also the artistic director of LA-based youth tap company Tap Con Sabor (Tap with Flavour), which aims to expose tap to the Latino community.

Sarah Reich began learning to tap dance at age 5 at the California Dance Center in Culver City, after her progressive parents thought it would be beneficial to enrol Sarah and her sister in a mainly black dance school to expose them to people different from themselves. At age 12 the sisters also began salsa dancing. Sarah moved on from California Dance Center to study with Alfred Desio, then Syd Glover, and the list goes on.

Sarah has a long list of mentors, but she spoke particularly of Paul Kennedy, who she called ‘one of the greatest tap dance teachers ever’, Jason Samuels Smith, Chloe Arnold and the late Dr Harold ‘Stumpy’ Cromer, who she described as her ‘best friend’. Paul Kennedy learnt from his mother Miriam Kennedy, and as well as teaching Sarah, he also taught Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia Sunbry-Edwards and the Nicholas Sisters (granddaughters of Fayard Nicholas). In these classes, it was all about performing and they tapped to all the old jazz, including Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

Learning with Jason Samuels-Smith, Sarah said this is when she fell in love with tap dance and her “passion and love for the art form came from Jason”. Chloe Arnold gave Sarah her business savvy by demonstrating how to create your own opportunities (Jason & Chloe started the LA Tap Fest in their early twenties), so at age 16, Sarah was already producing her own events. Sarah described Harold Cromer as “real old school”, a class act, and a “song and dance man”. She gave us two nuggets he instilled in her:

Learn to do by doing

Be classy…don’t look like a bum

Sarah discussed her love for other dance styles, especially swing dance and salsa, and as many of our guests have said over the last few weeks, she insisted that other styles of dance will always help your tap dance, and that it’s good to know the history of swing dance as it has links with tap dance and its jazz origins.

We heard all about the fun she had touring the US, Europe, Asia, Australia and South America with Postmodern Jukebox – a gig she initially turned down – and how this helped to establish her huge fan base, which enabled her to produce her New Change album at the right time.

Her conclusion on the state of tap dance today was that it’s getting better and more exciting, and that musicality and technique has got stronger. But, she feels that tap dance could do with more big time exposure, although she thinks it’s starting to happen…slowly.

Tap dancing allows you to be yourself

Respect the dance

Sarah Reich is so energetic and upbeat, and I can tell you, I really needed that positivity this week!

Check out this interview with Sarah in Dance Magazine: What Sarah Reich Wishes You Knew About Tap Dancers

Tap & Tea with Brenda Bufalino

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I wish I’d got a better photo because she had a huge, warm smile

On Thursday we were joined on ‘Tap & Tea’ by the amazing tap master and legend Brenda Bufalino! Brenda founded the American Tap Dance Orchestra (now the American Tap Dance Foundation), and was a trailblazer in the revival of tap dance, after it fell out of favour from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s. As well as being a solo performer, she partnered with legendary hoofer Honi Coles, who was also her mentor; she performed many times with the Nicholas Brothers and Gregory Hines and has received numerous awards, including the Tapestry Award, the Flobert Award, and the Tap City Hall of Fame Award, among others. Brenda is the author of several articles and books, including Tapping the Source, which comes highly recommended, and she currently teaches classes at ATDF in New York City. Did I mention she’s 83?

Brenda’s mother was a classical singer and her aunt a concert pianist, and they performed as the Strickland Sisters. Brenda joined the Strickland Sisters as a dancer at the age of around 8 or 9. Between the ages if 6-11 she studied at Professor O’Brien’s Normal School of Dancing before moving on to Alice Duffy’s School of Dance in Salem, Massachusetts. She was influenced by the jazz music her family enjoyed at home, including Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. She started dancing in the night clubs in Boston at the age of 14 and began to study West African and jazz dance under revered dance instructor Stanley Brown. She moved to New York City and worked with Honi Coles for around 6 months. Tap dance had died a death in the 1950s and lots of the venues had closed, but Brenda met Honi again 15 years later and brought him and the Copasetics group to her studio to create the documentary ‘Great Feats of Feet’, and eventually tap dance started to make a come back.

Eventually, Brenda began creating tap shows for the concert stage, which included the musicians being on the stage with the dancers, rather than in the pit as was the traditional way. This set the precedent for how tap is presented on stage today. Honi wasn’t convinced that people would sit still long enough to watch a whole night of tap dance, and he was heartbroken that tap dance had ‘died’, but thankfully he was proved wrong! Apparently the Nicholas Brothers were late coming back to the tap dance scene, but they did, and Brenda did lots of shows with them, particularly Fayard Nicholas, and she later danced at Harold’s funeral.

She shared loads of stories and anecdotes with us, and talked about touring the world with Honi, and the fact that tap in the UK, Australia and South Africa seemed very stiff, upright, formal and up on the toes, and jazz tap took a while to take hold, which everyone acknowledges was because of the prescriptive ‘syllabus’ tap that was and continues to be taught (although I’m told improvements have been made). I’ve never done syllabus tap – and the more I hear about it, the more I’m glad I went straight into the freedom and technique of rhythm tap classes. ‘Hoofer’ tap is down in the heels, and apparently people were furious with Brenda for ditching high heels and dancing in flatter tap shoes. Who knew? Some audiences were unimpressed at seeing a white woman on stage with a black man. SO STUPID, but unfortunately that was life in those days.

Brenda had a lot to say about Broadway. Choreographers on Broadway were generally not tap dancers and the choreographers who were tap dancers rarely received credit for their work. It was a case of having to fight for credit and the extra pay that came with that. Interestingly, she said she auditioned for 42nd Street and the choreographer didn’t know what to do with her – big giveaway, right? She did stress that in the old movie musicals, the choreographers were tap dancers – and you can tell this when you watch the tap sequences.

What a fantastic, inspirational lady! I think she was my favourite Tap & Tea guest so far, and they’ve all been pretty amazing.

I could have listened to Brenda Bufalino all day!

Quotes:

Those tap years were sexy!

Never work mechanically while doing technique or rudiments

Sense your whole body

Engage your whole self in getting that tone

Do not use music as a metronome; engage in it wholeheartedly

[Improvisation] is not a competition

When I put my tap shoes on, I fall in love

 

 

Tap & Tea with Bril Barrett

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Bril Barrett is a tap dancer based in Chicago, founder of M.A.D.D Rhythms (Making a Difference Dancing Rhythms), director of the Chicago Tap Summit, a provider of tap outreach in Chicago’s public schools and even has his own TED Talk. He describes his mission as being “to preserve and promote tap dance as a percussive art form…”.

He kicked off by discussing the fact that tap dance is a musical art form, and this is how it began, before it was grabbed by Hollywood to become something where you copy a routine perfectly; the creativity being removed. The original ‘hoofers’ were all about the music and didn’t even have names for the steps – it was just ‘bah dee bah dah’. You weren’t taught, you just learnt. Somebody would be doing some steps – you either picked them up or you didn’t! (Reminds me of an oversubscribed class I did at the MOVE IT Dance exhibition in London LOL). Improvisation was how tap was created, and that was how Bril created M.A.D.D Rhythms.

Bril is a massive champion of improvisation, and he includes it in his classes right from the beginning, so particularly with children, there is no fear, and his goal is to help them keep this fearlessness throughout their tap education. (Obviously it’s much more difficult to be fearless in improvisation as an adult beginner, speaking from experience!)

He started learning tap in free classes at his local community centre in his Chicago neighbourhood, before following his teacher to another studio on the North side of the city, where family members had to pool together to pay for $5 lessons for Bril and his cousins. At this studio, all the boys had to take tap and gymnastics, echoing the skills of the studio founders, Sammy Dyer and The Dyerettes. At the age of 11 Bril saw a guy called Mr Taps in the subway, a tap dancing busker, and asked if he & later his cousins, could tap with him after school every day. Mr Taps improvised his dancing, and this is where Bril got his improv education. Amazing! It was through him that he was introduced to the Nicholas Brothers and the Four Step Brothers, which was life changing. Through a family member, he and his cousin were introduced to a talent agent and they performed as a double act.

Bril was a tap dancer in the world-famous Riverdance, and told us a bit about being on tour with the company (including backstage jam sessions), and how the show touched on the trading of steps and sharing of dance styles that happened between Irish immigrants and free Africans in New York. (There was a similar story line in the Irish dance show I saw last summer called Heartbeat of Home). As mentioned in other posts he was also in Derick Grant and Aaron Tolson’s show Imagine Tap. Bringing together people from different tap backgrounds (such as Ray Hesselink) this was when he wanted to stop being classified as a type of tap dancer. As Ray said in his talk, Bril agreed that Derick bridged the gap between the types of tap. Just because someone dances in a theatre tap style, it doesn’t mean they can’t do other things! He actually said he likes the term ‘tap dancer’ and doesn’t like the term ‘rhythm tap’. I definitely appreciate what he’s saying. The classes I attend are called ‘rhythm tap’ (and we do a more heel-drop style of tap), but I think that helps people looking for classes to know what to expect, just like you know with ‘musical theatre tap’ classes (I chose from a list of ‘American Tap’, ‘Rhythm Tap’, ‘Theatre Tap’, ‘Jazz Tap’ and er ‘Tap’ classes in London and picked ‘Rhythm Tap’ because it sounded interesting…and was close to work). But yes, call yourself a tap dancer, rather than a rhythm tap dancer because all tap should have rhythm! Right?

We also chatted about tap jams (London has an amazing one in Hoxton, currently on Facebook Live every other Sunday night) and Bril runs some free tap jams as a way of building community and also removing the barrier for those who are without, so that they too can learn, grow and perform. I don’t know if I’d be able to get up on stage just yet 🙂 But it’s fine to go along and watch, and see where the evening takes you!

This was another amazing talk, and of course we overran because there was so much to say! Maybe they’ll invite him back again. I just loved hearing about how he’s removing barriers and making sure tap is accessible to all, no matter your background.

Bril’s Jazz Playlist:

  • Oscar Peterson
  • John Coltrane
  • Nina Simone
  • Miles Davis
  • Thelonious Monk

Quotes:

Once you make tap your own, you’ll do it; you won’t need to be told to practice

Improvisation is how tap was created

If you’re a good tap dancer, style is a choice

Tap jams make us better